Holly was ready to open the door. She grasped the knob and turned it clockwise.
For the last ten millennia, the door’s surface had appeared as steel, water, sky…now it settled into an iron set of bars, much like the entrance of a medieval prison cell.
Holly stepped through.
The area inside was open and spacious. Large clay tile coated the floor. Paintings and plants were arranged throughout. A warm glow suffused the air, courtesy of recessed lighting in the smooth white ceiling. A soothing trickle caressed her ears; it came from a miniature waterfall built in the wall.
Her memory returned, tentative at first, then with growing sureness and gut-deep certainty. She was Holly fucking Dent. A teen-queen cheerleader, destined to rule through strength and fear. She would get her degree at Harvard or Yale, become a CEO in record time, then win the presidency. Not for power, but to show her enemies she could do what she wanted, be who she wanted, and fuck anyone who wasn’t on board because she was Holly Fucking De—
As her identity crystallized, the center of the room came into focus. There were two wooden chairs facing inward, a round coffee table set between them. On the rightmost chair was a white-haired man dressed in a tasteful mix of flowing grays, like a dorky-ass Elf from Lord of the Rings. His right leg was folded over his left—a “smart man’s” sitting posture. Under normal circumstances, Holly would have thought this effeminate and weak, but somehow, he still seemed masculine.
“Please,” he repeated. “Sit.” He extended a hand toward the other chair.
She slowly sat, looking cautiously from side to side. Her guarded manner elicited a chuckle.
“This isn’t a trap.”
“How would I know?”
“You wouldn’t.” He shrugged. “You need to have faith.”
Holly snorted. “I have faith in myself, motherfucker.”
The stranger sighed. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’ll do. Nevertheless, I’m under obligation to give you a choice.”
“Yeah?” Holly became dimly aware of her body growing younger. She was no longer a withered old man; she was the dangerous barbarian she’d first inhabited. “Maybe you’re wrong; maybe I’m the one who gives you a choice.”
The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Which is?”
“Whether or not you keep your limbs.”
The stranger sounded a little sad. “As I expected.”
“You have something I want.” Holly gave him a menacing stare.
“That I do.” The stranger regarded her with a dispassionate gaze.
“Give it to me. Or I swear to Christ I’ll—”
The stranger laughed. “That’s the last person you should swear to. She’s on my side, you know.”
Holly scoffed. “ ‘She?’ Maybe you haven’t heard, but the greatest scammer in all of history is packing meat between his le—”
“It’s She.” He flapped his hand. “Another story for another time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
A puff of air blew through his nose—not quite a laugh, but almost.